Nothing is ever perfect going into an ultra. No matter how intense or careful the preparation, murphy’s law dictates that something will pop up in the days or weeks leading up to race day. In my case, I usually manage to self-sabotage by overtraining, over-racing or ‘over-life-ing’. As my friend Leah would say, you can’t put ten pounds of shit in an eight pound bag. Despite knowing this to be true, I inevitably find myself covered in a couple of pounds of shit hours before race start with a look on my face that says ‘again?’
The week leading up to the Western States Endurance Run should have been awesome. I had come in the weekend before to volunteer with Eric Schranz of UltraRunnerPodcast as a co-finish line announcer at the Broken Arrow Skyrace, which was hysterical (I got punchier as the day went on, making up more and more outrageous bios for the runners who finished closer to the end of our 13 hour shift. Apologies to the bull inseminator from Iceland, the mall santa from Norway, and the fart inspector from the small island state of Tuvalu!). The energy levels in Squaw almost seemed drug-induced – it wasn’t natural for this much buzz to be pulsating around one little mountain town. One by one, dear friends showed up in town for the race, and I was ecstatic to be surrounded by people I loved and respected. And on the Wednesday before the race I turned 35 – the first birthday I had celebrated outside of a war zone in about five years. There was much to celebrate. Unfortunately, there was also much to fret over, which was detracting significantly from the awesomeness of the week. I’ll spare you from the details, but I was facing difficulties navigating a fairly difficult personal situation. Not exactly the restful week I had dreamed up in my head.
To make matters worse, I woke up the day before the race with a raging bladder
infection, which I suspect had something to do with my daily heat training sessions in the sauna (heat + dehydration). There I was peeing blood and the race hadn’t even started. Omigod!! On the plus side, I was able to orchestrate a quick prescription of antibiotics. Phew. On the downside, I was told it wouldn’t get me back to normal by the race and – get this – it would turn my pee bright orange/burgundy. I would have no way to tell how dehydrated I was in the race, so I’d have to be careful. I made a mental note to be more discrete than usual on my bathroom breaks so as not to scare the other runners with my devil pee.
By the time race registration rolled around, I realized that it just didn’t matter. This was Western States!!! (For those of you who don’t know about the race, it is the oldest 100 miler in the world and steeped in history. I’ve been applying off and on since 2009 and only secured a spot this year, thanks to Strava). This was my one chance to run the race of a lifetime and I might not get it again – I could not let anything detract from this experience. I was going to enjoy every minute, even if I had to do it with fanta-themed pee. Whatever stresses were going on in my life, they would be left behind on the trail over the course of the 100 miles. Game on. (Side note: at race check in, legendary female runner Nikki Kimball was there to help put on race bracelets. We talked about the race and some of the challenges I was facing, and I asked for tips. She said cranberry juice. I said ‘erm, I meant tips on the race’…..hahahah)
The start of Western States is truly unique. In contrast to all of the fanfare and hoopla that taint European race starts, Western States feels very understated – in a good way. It is like an intimate family wedding. Everyone has travelled from far away to be together to celebrate an event they’ve been waiting for for months, if not years. It was a moment I wanted to hold on to well beyond the time displayed on the countdown clock.
The climb up to the escarpment felt great. I was worried about the snow we would encounter for the first 10 miles – especially thinking back to my accident in January – but it felt amazing to get moving. And climbing is what I tend to do best. I think the beginning section of the race was actually a fast section for me. While the snow and slush in the high country caused the faster/elite runners to falter, it favoured runners like me, who tend to be a bit ‘scrappier’. I was happy as a clam battling my way through the tough terrain, dreading the very runnable ‘flats’ that lay ahead. I passed Camille Herron at some stage early on, which shouldn’t have happened – it made me question whether she was having an incredibly bad day or whether I was rocking it. I pondered this for a full 45 seconds as I squatted by the side of the trail, leaving my trademark sunkist print on the snow, and decided it was too early to debate.
At 24.4 miles, I ran into the aid station at Duncan Canyon and made a beeline for crew team #1, who were a group of 20-something all-American women who had volunteered to help me through the race. Despite never having crewed before, and only one having completed an ultradistance, they exuded the aura of a professional team. “You’re in about 19th or 20th place right now and everyone is running 30 minutes slower than expected,” said Krissi*, rattling off the exact information I said would be helpful to know at checkpoints.
“I’ve got the guac right here!” shouted Ashley*, dutifully holding the container of guacamole I had requested in one hand and a bag of tortilla chips in another. If I wasn’t in the middle of the race, I would have burst out laughing at the look at intensity on her face over this assortment of junk food. Krissi* smeared wet wipes across my face muttering “salt…salt” while Blair snapped photos with her giant camera. I shovelled the salty avocado snack into my mouth by the chip-ful as Alice* tied my ice bandana around my neck and filled my hat with more cubes. Krissi *shoved her smartphone in front of my face, showing me the course profile over the next section, and Ashley rattled off a laundry list of things I might want from my supplies. And then before I could blink, I was on my way again down the trail towards Robinson’s Flat at 30 miles where I would meet up with crew team #2, consisting of Belinda, Matt, Zandy (paparazzi extraordinaire) and doctor John, who was our local secret weapon.
Coming into Robinson’s Flat, I thought I was doing okay, but I could feel how slowly I was going. My team told me I was running perfectly just behind Amy Sproston (a dear friend who got 2nd last year but unfortunately had to drop later in the course this year) and Meghan Argoblast (who came top ten), and that I was well-suited for a top ten finish if I kept that up. That was their first lie to me – they later confessed I looked a bit ragged, and indeed that is where I started dry heaving. Mile 30…. really? It was going to be a long day. Where was that guac? Gab, my Aussie wrestler-turned-ultrarunner friend, was standing by, practically jumping out of his skin waiting start pacing me at 62 miles. Gab and I have a hilarious rivalry that will surface again at Tor des Geants later this year, and he was eager to pick up my secret tips first-hand on the trail. Seeing how invested my crew was in me and how sure they were that I could do well just made me want to make them proud. I wanted to honour their time out there and their efforts.
Eight miles later I trudged into Dusty Corners and crew team #1 was on the ball again. I
dropped a bunch of orange-stained wet wipes at their feet with an apologetic look, ate some watermelon, replaced the ice bandage and ran off again shouting thank yous to the team. They warned me that the hot section in the canyons was ahead and that I wouldn’t see crew again for almost 20 miles. This is where it could all fall apart…
Much to my surprise, I loved the canyons. It is notorious for being the most difficult section of the race because that is where the elevation really drops and the heat really gets trapped in the valleys. This year, temperatures reached over 100F (40C), and no amount of ice would last through the stage. It is also probably the most technical section of the course with single track descending in and out of the canyons. I really prefer this kind of terrain to the more smooth and runnable sections of the course, so I actually picked up a number of runners here. At the same time, a number of female runners ran past me with ease in parts, which made me worry…
My legs felt shot, which confused me. I had completed three ultras leading up to Western States – Madeira, Transvulcania, and the Maxi Race – so neither the distance nor the elevation scared me. Only the speed at which the race would be held. Maybe it was TOO much racing? Maybe I was naive? I’m not sure. My right quad was throbbing and my feet were killing me. I felt lethargic. I started to fret that I was letting my crew down. I looked at my watch and realized I was well off my secret time goal of 21/22 hours, and was actually in danger of not even making 24 hours (which I had arrogantly assumed was in the bag). Oh no….
Michigan Bluff was a blur. All I could think about was getting to Foresthill at 62 miles, where Gab could start pacing me. All I needed to do was keep my brain switched on for a few more miles and then I was home free! Woooooohoooooooo!!!! European races don’t allow pacers (haven’t found one yet), so this was a real treat. Soon all will be well.
At the checkpoint, the doc met me before the aid station and told me to grab what I needed before coming over to the space they had set up for me beside their truck. I swigged a can of coke and grabbed a dixie cup of pickle juice, which is supposed to help cramping. The pickle juice tasted like angel tears, but it probably wasn’t such a good idea to have it as a coke chaser. It wasn’t long after I plonked down into a chair that I gave my crew a bit of a puking show. There I was, bent over for multiple rounds of vomiting with no less than three cameras capturing the chaos…. I should have been miserable. But I just kept thinking about how I surrounded by all of these people who cared about me enough to tolerate the backsplash. In a puking pause, I looked up and saw Krissi nibbling away at a sandwich – probably one of the few things she’d actually been able to grab for herself all day. She let me grab it out of her hands, eat it with my pukey face, and promptly spit it out without complaint. And I hadn’t known this woman for more than a few days.
With the sting of vomit in my nose, I started smiling uncontrollably. This was just awesome. Sometimes, even puking can bring out beauty. Sometimes it is like you are puking glitter.
The doc was all business, sorting out my pack, fixing my headtorch on my head, and grabbing anti-nausea meds. I almost puked on his arm as I lurched forward. It just wouldn’t stop. He gave me a package of alcohol wipes and told me to sniff them if I felt the nausea return. What an awesome trick!!! Of course, I immediately forgot about it 30 seconds after I left the checkpoint.
Gab and I set off after what seemed like too-long of a break, and I let go of any hope of finishing under 24 hours for the coveted silver buckle. I was running as best as I could, and that would just have to do. The goal was now just to finish. Gab and I chatted along the trail, which was stunning as the sun set, and caught up on life. I told him the good and the bad, and he listened. I grunted when I got pain and complained about my quad. “What did you expect after 70 miles?” he quipped. It shut down my negative talk pretty quickly. Gab does not allow whiners, and it kept me moving.
I was still nauseous, but absolutely starving. With my stomach growling, I told Gab I would need to try to eat, even though I knew it would cause me to puke again. At Peachstone (70.7 miles), I tried eating a few bites of a grilled cheese sandwich and valiantly carried it with me until Ford’s Bar at 73 miles, where the tears started to flow. As Gab went to refuel at the food table, I started weeping in front of one of the volunteers. “I don’t know why I’m so slow!” I cried. “I’m not going to make 24 hours. I thought it would be easier than this.” The volunteer chuckled at the ridiculousness of my statement and reassured me that everyone was having a bad time. She told me that Stephanie Howe and Kaci Lickteig had both cried at that very aid station, which made me feel like I was in good company.
Gab got me on the trail again, reminding me that in just five miles, I would meet up with the doc, who would pace me the rest of the race. Doc meant more anti-nausea drugs, so I was more than excited. Running up to Rucky Chucky, it felt magical. There was a string of lights around the checkpoint and I could hear the raging river below – one that runners normally have to cross holding on to a rope, but this year the river was too high from the snowmelt, forcing us to be ferried across in boats.
I gave Gab a big hug and thanked him for getting me through the last 16 miles. Gab would continue on the course on his own, finishing the last 22 miles two hours ahead of me (y’know, for extra training, the nutcase). John passed me a brown bag containing – drumroll – chicken mcnuggets and french fries, and I couldn’t have been happier. McDonalds was just what I needed!! Mesmerized by the fatty goodness, I glanced over to my right and saw Kaci Lickteig slumped in a chair beside her coach, Jason Koop.
Kaci should not have been there. As last year’s winner, she was quite evidently hours off her time, and it was written all over her face. I offered her some nuggets and fries, which she declined, but it seemed to make her smile. We started chatting and she said she was dropping. There was nothing left in her… or so she was trying to convince me. But I knew there was a reason why she hadn’t dropped yet. If she was really done, she wouldn’t still have been sitting there at the checkpoint. I knew the mental gymnastics she must have been playing in her head, and I was convinced she was capable of getting to the end. This was Kaci we were talking about!!! I gave her a speech about how it just didn’t matter what time she came in – she had nothing to prove. Everyone loved her and we were all behind her. So why not just keep going and finish.
Kaci told me that she would just end up dropping at Green Gate two miles away if she continued, and I told her fine (knowing that once she got moving she wouldn’t drop again). She just needed to take a few steps. She then said that she didn’t know where her headtorch was anymore. No problem! I took off the extra light I had around my waist and clipped it on to her 90 pound frame. Without any excuses left, I grabbed her hand and pulled her out of the chair before she could come up with another reason to stay. Koop mouthed THANK YOU behind her head and I smiled at the conspiracy. This was awesome!!! Kaci had encouraged me at the beginning of the year when I was in the hospital, and this time it was my turn to help.
John and I headed up the trail on the other side of the river and said goodbye to Kaci, knowing full-well she’d be catching us up on the trail (which she did, chasing a skunk and yelling gleefully at the top of her lungs). Down to the final stretch. John, being a local from Truckee and having paced people on the course before, could give me very detailed descriptions of what was coming up on the trail, which was hugely helpful. As we came through each of the checkpoints, we tried in vain to get some calories in, but the puking didn’t really subside. We decided around Auburn Lake that the race would have to be finished on gingerale and hard candies, and that would be just fine.
I was still well behind the 24 hour pace, but we noticed that I was gaining some ground. Thirty minutes turned to twenty-five and then to twenty, and all of a sudden it seemed like it could be within grasp… but I fought against it. I was exhausted, in pain, and out of fuel, and I just wanted to chat and jog and enjoy the last miles. There was no way I was going to get the silver buckle and I repeatedly told John just how comfortable I was with it. It was fine. Yup. Fine.
When we got to Pointed Rock, just six miles from the finish, we realized that the 24 hour mark could – could – be within reach if I really booted it. It was a moment of excitement and dread. If I didn’t go for it, I would always regret not knowing…. if I did go for it and still missed it by a couple of minutes, I would beat myself up for spending a little too long at an aid station somewhere along the way. But the thought of actually getting that silver buckle meant I had to try.
John picked up the pace and I followed. He was positively giddy with excitement, but trying very hard not to say anything. I was almost silent, concentrating on my breathing and willing the searing pain in my legs to go away. “Let’s just run straight through the next checkpoints – no stopping,” I said through clenched teeth. We were told at No Hands Bridge that it was going to be a tight finish, but I was now committed.
John pushed the pace and kept me running as much as possible up the incline. When we got to the climb, his eyes were glued to his watch. I was practically hyperventilating from the exertion, but I wanted to throw everything into these last minutes. I wanted that 24 hour finish so badly.
At Robie Point, blobs of people formed around me and started shouting positive things in my ears. I was having trouble identifying who was there and I didn’t want to stop to check – all energy had to be put on moving forward – but the voices of Gab, my all-American dream team, and Jack Meyer rang in my ears. Occasionally I would let out a panicked cry at the gravity of the moment – it was almost too much. Years of failed applications to get into this race, my accident, months of training, 70 miles of puking, 100 miles of peeing orange… it was all coming down to minutes, if not seconds.
And then, I reached the track. I was on the track at Placer High. After so many years of seeing people running towards the finishing arch, it was me…. I kept worrying that my legs would give out in those final moments and I would collapse in a sweaty mess on the ground while watching the seconds tick away, but the legs kept moving. I asked John to run beside me, but he smiled and told me that they were all going to disappear to the side – this finish was for me alone.
I crossed the line at 23:58:25, a full 95 seconds before the 24 hour mark. I was the last silver buckler of the race. Kaci finished just a couple of minutes behind as the first bronze buckler. I was so proud to see her finish – most elites in her position would not have battled through, and she didn’t give up.
It wasn’t the race performance I was expecting. The conditions this year made the times incredibly slow across the board – it was the 4th slowest race in decades (since the 80s) and it had the highest dropout rate since 2009. But I got so much more out of the race than I ever thought I would. It was messy, it was raw and it was magical. It was 100 miles of puking glitter.**
I’m not sure I can thank my crew and pacers enough for what they did for me out there. My all female dream team went from being strangers to family in the course of those 100 miles. I have images of Zandy lying in the dirt on the side of the trail to get the perfect shot burned into my memory – he flew all the way out from Brooklyn just to be there to capture the carnage (please check out his work – he’s incredible). Gab gave up a precious weekend at home with his family to run with me into the night, forgoing sleep and all forms of comfort just to be there. Belinda, who travelled from Switzerland, and Matt Moroz, who helped keep everyone on track during the day. And of course John, without whom I wouldn’t have made it to the finish. Having someone who you feel is more invested in the race than you are is an extremely powerful motivator, and that’s what kept me going.
I loved everything about this race. And I just want to do it again. I don’t care if it takes another ten years to get an entry… I will #seeyouinsquaw once more, whenever that may be.
*My fuzzy race memory has caused the individual faces of my peppy crew members to meld into one generic face of awesomeness, so I’m assigning identities on a somewhat random basis.
**In response to one of my puking photos on instagram, a follower commented that it looked like I was puking glitter. I thought that was the perfect title for this post.